Let Girls Be Girls: Navigating the Maze of Girls’ Mental Health

Aria Lovelace
Aria Lovelace

There seems to be a pop culture shift happening. The word “girl” has gone from once being used as a schoolyard insult to an everyday compliment with phrases like “That’s so girl,” its own budgeting strategy with “girl math,” an exercise with “hot girl walks,” and even 2023 being marked as the “Year of the Girl.” Young girls can now watch Barbie and see a woman as president or listen to Beyoncé and hear the most decorated Grammy-winning performing artist of all time. However, through all of this, it seems America Ferrera’s Oscar-nominated monologue from the recent Barbie movie still rings true. With feelings of persistent sadness and anxiety at an all-time high for teen girls in what has been identified as a crisis, girls’ mental health has never been important to discuss and understand.

Directly in the wake of the “Year of the Girl,”  the most recent teen mental health studies released by the CDC reported that 3 in 5 U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless— and that was in 2021. This represented a nearly 60% increase since 2011 and the highest report in the last decade. In the same study, 30% of girls said they’d considered suicide – double the rate of boys. This data implores us to consider what the contributing factors are to this mental health epidemic teen girls are facing. Lisa Damour, PhD, author of  “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls,” has talked about what could be aiding in the recent increase of anxiety amongst girls. As time progresses, Damour explains, more is put on young girls’ plates through social and academic pressures. 

Girls make up about 70% of high school valedictorians and live in an era with many opportunities at their fingertips. However, what happens when these new opportunities are juxtaposed with cultural and societal standards about what girls wear, how they talk, and whether or not they are socially engaging on top of pursuing these big aspirations? The key lies in how we socialize many young girls to be self-conscious whereas boys the same age are being taught self-control. Take all of this and then introduce things like the classroom or interpersonal relationships, where conflict is meant to arise naturally, and you see this exorbitant amount of stress put on young girls who might not yet have the skills to manage it intrinsically.

It is time we find better ways to support girls. When we practice validating others’ emotions, we also build up their non-cognitive skills, which can embolden them to respond to stress and pressure in ways that make them feel more secure and confident when faced with conflict. We cheer for the girls on the silver screen and stadium stage, now cheer for the girls next door, who take it one day at a time.  

So, what are a few things we can do to support girls’ mental health?

Identify burnout and offer support — Self-care is more than a trend; it’s an essential part of maintaining your physical and mental well-being. Encouraging girls to get that extra hour of sleep or splurge on an afternoon that’s work or school-free can make all the difference in battling burnout.

Check-in — Ask girls how they feel, what’s happening in their lives, and more. Give them that space to vent and reflect without making them feel burdensome or selfish for communicating. 

Separate productivity from value — Remind girls that their grades, sports teams, and college acceptances are not where they derive their value from. They are whole on their own; their accomplishments or setbacks do not define who they are. 

Supporting and celebrating the girls around us requires a multifaceted approach encompassing recognition, communication, and empowerment. By identifying signs of burnout, offering unwavering support, and emphasizing the importance of self-worth independent of achievements, we can cultivate a culture of resilience among girls. Together, by taking these actions, we can empower girls to navigate life’s challenges with strength, grace, and a belief in their inherent value and worth.